St. Mary's University School of Law instructor Rosanne Piatt's days at the school are numbered. That's despite the high ratings her students in family law and legal research and writing classes gave her on a fall 2008 evaluation survey.
Piatt says she taught her last class on April 24, and she was scheduled to give her last final exam on April 28.
A full-time instructor at the San Antonio law school since January 1999, Piatt alleges in a charge of discrimination she filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Texas Workforce Commission Civil Rights Division that St. Mary's University notified her a year ago that her contract would terminate on May 31, the end of the 2008-2009 academic year.
In the charge, which Piatt filed in November 2008, she alleges her belief that St. Mary's law school has discriminated against her because of her age and gender. She is 57 years old.
"If you're an older female at St. Mary's, you're at risk," Piatt alleges in an interview.
On Jan. 23, the university filed its response to the EEOC, according to an April 2 letter to an EEOC investigator from Piatt.
As alleged in her charge of discrimination, a younger instructor who is less experienced than Piatt was moved to a long-term contract. She also alleges in the charge that St. Mary's law school has retained a male instructor with less seniority than she has and has hired less qualified males on tenure track, while her contract is not being renewed.
"My teaching, research and service have all been exemplary," Piatt alleges in the charge.
In an interview, Piatt says. "There's never been any kind of disciplinary action taken against me."
But, as alleged in the charge of discrimination, Piatt believes St. Mary's law school may have decided not to renew her contract as a retaliatory action. She alleges a belief that St. Mary's retaliated against her because her husband Bill Piatt, former dean of the law school, filed a charge of discrimination against the school with the EEOC on April 26, 2007. The basis of Bill Piatt's charge of discrimination, according to his wife's filing with the EEOC, was that St. Mary's law school removed him as dean and from a prestigious professorship "because he had opposed discrimination against St. Mary's University female African American faculty members and prospective faculty members, and he opposed discrimination against minority students and applicants."
Three St. Mary's law professors contacted by Texas Lawyer decline comment. A fourth St. Mary's law professor did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
Bill Piatt, now a professor at St. Mary's law school, declines comment on his charge of discrimination against the law school.
"I am not at liberty to discuss it," he says.
Matthew Pearson, a partner in San Antonio's Gravely & Pearson who represented Bill Piatt before the EEOC, says St. Mary's settled with Bill Piatt in May or June of 2007. The settlement is confidential, Pearson says.
Rosanne Piatt alleges in her charge of discrimination, "The non-renewal of my contract occurred on the first renewal cycle after my husband's charge was filed." In an interview, she says, "I'm sort of collateral damage in all of this."
As alleged in Rosanne Piatt's charge, her contract with St. Mary's was reviewed on an annual basis and was renewed every year since 1999 until April 1, 2008, when St. Mary's University notified her it would not renew her contract. "I was given no reason for the non-renewal of my contract," she alleges in the charge. Piatt says what she wants is to have her contract renewed.
Daniel B. Ross, principal in the Ross Law Group in Austin and one of Rosanne Piatt's attorneys, says Piatt has enough evidence to file the charge of discrimination to trigger an EEOC investigation.
"The EEOC has to make a determination whether it finds reasonable cause to believe she was discriminated against or retaliated against," Ross says.
Rodney Klein, the education and training manager for the EEOC's Dallas district office, declines comment.
Robert G. Newman, a partner in Fulbright & Jaworski in San Antonio who represents St. Mary's University, refers Texas Lawyer's questions about Rosanne Piatt's charge to the university.
"My client wishes to speak on that matter," Newman says.
Lucha Ramey, the St. Mary's University media relations director, e-mailed a statement from the university, which reads: "Out of respect for our employees, St. Mary's University officials are bound by a policy that requires we treat internal personnel matters as confidential and therefore we are prohibited from discussing such matters publicly."
Ramey writes in her e-mail, "This is the official statement for the university and school of law administration and the only statement the university will make."
Newman and Ramey decline to provide Texas Lawyer a copy of the university's response to Rosanne Piatt's charge of discrimination. Ramey writes in an e-mail that St. Mary's will not provide the university's response, "because that is considered part of Ms. Piatt's personnel file, and it is St. Mary's policy not to release personnel files or violate a person's privacy by disclosing information in that file. If Ms. Piatt chooses to share her copy with you, that is her choice."
But Kell Simon, another of Rosanne Piatt's attorneys and an associate with the Ross Law Group, says he cannot provide Texas Lawyer a copy of the university's response unless Newman authorizes Piatt to release that document, which, according to Simon, Newman declines to do.
Newman writes in an e-mail, "They can do whatever they believe they are legally entitled to do with the response. I am certain that they made no agreements with us before we sent her our response."
Rosanne Piatt also sought the advice and assistance of the American Association of University Professors after she received notice that her contract would not be renewed, according to a Feb. 26 letter that Gregory Scholtz, AAUP's associate secretary and director for the Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance, wrote to Charles Cotrell, president of St. Mary's University.
Scholtz wrote in the letter that under the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure and AAUP's recommended standards, Rosanne Piatt is entitled to the procedural protections available to tenured faculty. As noted in Scholtz's letter, the 1940 Statement provides that after a probationary period of no more than seven years, teachers or investigators should have permanent or continuous tenure.
In an interview, Scholtz says a school should not be able to let a faculty member go after 10 years of service without a hearing of record in which the administration must show adequate cause for the termination.
"She deserves to know the reasons why she was not reappointed, and she deserves a hearing in which she can contest the reasons," Scholtz says of Piatt.
But Scholtz says the AAUP does not have much leverage in such cases. "AAUP doesn't investigate and censure institutions," he says.
In the fall 2008 evaluation survey, 100 percent of the 62 students in Rosanne Piatt's family law class agreed that she was prepared for class, and 98 percent agreed that she demonstrated a knowledge and command of the material. Of the survey respondents, 93 percent agreed that Piatt encouraged and stimulated their thinking on family law.
Several of Rosanne Piatt's former students who graduated in May 2007 say she was one of the best teachers they had at St. Mary's.
Reese Campbell, now an assistant district attorney, says of Piatt, "If more professors approached teaching the way she did, I think everyone would benefit."
Campbell says Piatt taught students how to apply the law to the facts of the case. "She didn't focus on a lot of old case law," he says.
Kelly Dawson-Martinez, another 2007 graduate who now is an associate with Sullivan & Associates in Georgetown, Texas, says he would rate Piatt as stellar.
"She very plainly gave us what we needed to know to successfully practice law in Texas," Dawson-Martinez says.
Campbell and Dawson-Martinez say St. Mary's law school students typically do well on the family law portion of the Texas bar examination, and they say that is because of Rosanne Piatt's teaching. Beth Barbee, the law school's spokeswoman, says the school receives statistics on the pass rate of its students from the Texas Board of Law Examiners but the statistics do not break down the pass rate on each part of the exam.
Although Rosanne Piatt is alleging age and sex discrimination in her charge, her attorneys say it may be easiest for them to make a case that the law school retaliated against her.
Although he declines to comment on Piatt's case in particular, Ross says, "As a general rule, a retaliation complaint is less difficult to prove than a discrimination complaint." Ross says Rosanne Piatt was a witness to the alleged discrimination cited by Bill Piatt in his 2007 charge to the EEOC. As noted in Rosanne Piatt's charge, Bill Piatt has alleged discrimination against African-American female faculty and staff at St. Mary's law school.
Simon says that a short time after Bill Piatt filed his charge of discrimination, St. Mary's failed to renew Rosanne Piatt's contract.
One attorney who practices employment law says Rosanne Piatt must show more than that her husband filed a charge of discrimination. To prove her retaliation claim, Piatt has to show she has engaged in a protected activity, says Michael Maslanka, managing partner of Ford & Harrison in Dallas. Maslanka typically represents employers in employment law cases but is not involved in Piatt's charge of discrimination.
"She's going to have to prove her own independent protected activity," Maslanka says of Piatt. "She cannot just piggy-back on her husband."
Maslanka cites a 1996 decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Holt and Holt v. JTM Industries Inc. In Holt , the 5th Circuit held that a husband who did not participate or support his wife when she filed a charge of age discrimination against the company that employed them both lacked standing to sue for retaliation.
Rosanne Piatt alleges in her charge, "I, too, had objected to discrimination which I witnessed at St. Mary's University."
In an interview, she says, "If I have some involvement in the underlying action and the entity takes action against me, then they are retaliating against me."